Freaks of nature What anomalies tell us about development and evolution

Mark Samuel Blumberg, 1961-

Book - 2009

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Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press c2009.
Physical Description
xiv, 326 p. : ill. ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references and indexes.
Main Author
Mark Samuel Blumberg, 1961- (-)
Review by Choice Reviews

In Freaks of Nature, Blumberg (Univ. of Iowa) moves nature's oddities from the dim tents of circus sideshows to the center ring of scientific endeavor. Anomalies reveal much information about the fundamental processes of development. The tendency to seek genetic explanations has predisposed people to dismiss developmental anomalies as aberrations, but the author cautions readers that developmental problems can be far more complex than simple genetics can explain. Blumberg uses society's fascination with freaks to open a window on the subtle and intricate mechanisms of epigenesis, induction, and other developmental issues. He stresses the unique role of development in evolutionary processes. Why are the extremes of variation considered to be repulsive in our own species, but of potential adaptive value in other species? Though the breezy style of this well-written expedition into the bizarre will make the book accessible to a wide audience, it sometimes lapses into sensationalism, a difficult trap to avoid given the subject matter. Extensive notes and a solid bibliography round out the text. Summing Up: Recommended. Academic libraries serving all undergraduates, researchers, and faculty; large public libraries. Copyright 2009 American Library Association.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

In most respects, Abigail and Brittany Hensel are normal American twins. Born and raised in a small town, they enjoy a close relationship, though each has her own tastes and personality. But the Hensels also share a body. Their two heads sit side-by-side on a single torso, with two arms andtwo legs. They have not only survived, but have developed into athletic, graceful young women. And that, writes Mark S. Blumberg, opens an extraordinary window onto human development and evolution. In Freaks of Nature, Blumberg turns a scientist's eye on the oddities of nature, showing how a subject once relegated to the sideshow can help explain some of the deepest complexities of biology. Why, for example, does a two-headed human so resemble a two-headed minnow? What we need to understand,Blumberg argues, is that anomalies are the natural products of development, and it is through developmental mechanisms that evolution works. Freaks of Nature induces a kind of intellectual vertigo as it upends our intuitive understanding of biology. What really is an anomaly? Why is a limbless humana "freak," but a limbless reptile-a snake-a successful variation? What we see as deformities, Blumberg writes, are merely alternative paths for development, which challenge both the creature itself and our ability to fit it into our familiar categories. Rather than mere dead-ends, many anomalies prove surprisingly survivable-as in the case of the goat withoutforelimbs that learned to walk upright. Blumberg explains how such variations occur, and points to the success of the Hensel sisters and the goat as examples of the extraordinary flexibility inherent in individual development. In taking seriously a subject that has often been shunned as discomfiting and embarrassing, Mark Blumberg sheds new light on how individuals-and entire species-develop, survive, and evolve.